From fire and song to imageless Good – Friar Jacopone da Todi

Evelyn Underhill, Jacopone Da Todi, Poet and Mystic–1228-1306, a Spiritual Biography, London: J.M. Dent 1919

(Reviewed by Ted Witham)

It’s no surprise that in reading Evelyn Underhill on Jacopone that you are reading two mystics at once: the 13th century Franciscan and the 20th Century Anglican, Underhill herself.

While unfolding the life of Jacopone, Underhill shows what a great teacher of mysticism she is. Her understanding of Jacopone’s progress in the spiritual life is penetrating and fascinating, and to draw this portrait, she opens up the literature on mysticism in an accessible way.

Jacopone trained as a lawyer, although it seems that much of his time as a student was spent studying poetry and literature. In particular he was fascinated by the new vernacular poetry being created in the dialects of the Italian peninsula with its roots in the love songs of the jongleurs.

He practised for some years as a celebrity lawyer, enjoying the comforts of the good life. He later threw over all the material trappings of success to become a Franciscan Tertiary, spending perhaps ten years in the rough habit of a Tertiary, probably wandering from town to town spreading the gospel message through songs and poetry.


He felt a particular closeness to the ageing Brother Leo still living at the Portiuncula near Assisi and to the zelanti, the party within the friars who emphasised absolute poverty. Eventually he sought entry to the convent at Todi. The friars there took some time to accept him: they were of the more relaxed party, and were perhaps reluctant to accept a strong personality at the extreme other end of the Franciscan movement. Why did Jacopone choose the Todi friary? Certainly the town of Todi was his home. But it may also have been a genuine reflection of his humility. He chose to submit himself to superiors with views quite different from his own, and he agreed to remain a lay brother and not seek the privileges of clerical office within the Order.

He seemed to want the quiet life. But to break a deadlock in the 1294 Conclave his friend, the hermit Pietro Angelerio, was unexpectedly elected Pope Celestine V. Celestine’s administration was a disaster. It appears that Jacopone, the trained lawyer, travelled to assist the Pope, probably at his court in Naples.

At the same time, tensions within the Franciscan Order grew even greater, and, perhaps thinking that Jacopone’s presence in the papal court would help, the friars appealed to Celestine to sort the Order out. Celestine’s solution was drastic. He invited all the zelanti to leave the Friars Minor altogether and to come directly under his protection. Because it would break their connection with St Francis of Assisi, neither the zelanti nor the moderati wanted this, so Jacopone returned to Todi, disillusioned, and probably saddened to watch his friend’s papacy spiral downwards in chaos until Celestine resigned later that year and returned to being a hermit.

Jacopone spent the rest of his life in relative seclusion in the convent at Todi. His poems and songs reveal how he grew spiritually leaving behind the wild joy of his years as a Tertiary, to learn how to order love and to integrate his being as a Christian, and finally to detach himself from everything except God’s grasp of him.

His reputation for saintliness continued to grow in his lifetime, particularly among Tertiaries. Guilds of Tertiaries gathered to sing Jacopone’s songs, often belting them out like rugby fans singing Abide With Me, but also writing their own sensitive spiritual songs in the vernacular.

Jacopone’s story reveals the interplay between the interior and exterior life: how as a Tertiary, he lived la santa pazia (the holy madness). His wandering life reflected the roller-coaster emotions of the jubilo, the interior stage of the soul’s progress, characterised by “immoderate transports, tears, raptures, despairs” (p. 132). This early stage was an inebriation, which, as Jacopone wandered the beautiful Umbrian countryside, he saw reflected in all Creation and in the Creator. (p. 79)

Jacopone strikingly believed that God does not fit with narrow-mindedness.

Dio non alberga en core stretto
tant’è grande quant’hai affetto,
povertate ha si’ gran petto
che chi alberga deitate.
(Lauda LX)

 God does not dwell in narrow hearts,
the larger the heart the greater the desire for God –
poverty has such a great heart
that Deity dwells there.

Eventually Jacopone realised that he needed to be more ordered in love. He passed from Richard Rolle’s stage of “fire and song”, through the stage of intellectual integration, ‘’mentis sublevatio, in which the illuminated mind beholds things above itself” (Richard of St. Victor, p. 231) to a stage of letting go completely to find “Love beyond all language, imageless Good.”(p. 225)

Jacopone writes of this final spiritual stage:

Possedi posseduta
entanta unione
non c’è divisione
che te da lui retragga.
Tu bevi e se’ bevuta
en transformazione
. (Lauda XCI)

You possess – and you are the possessed,
in such a complete union
there is no division
that can drag you away from him.
You drink – and you are the drink
in this transformation.

The saint discovers that God’s love is as ordinary and amazing as gravity, felt as the soul’s weight, carrying it to its right place; God’s love is “the secret of stability, the rule of the Universe”. (p. 235)

From his time as a travelling Tertiary onwards, when he wrote his early songs and ballads, until his death, Jacopone wrote songs, poems and satirical verse in Umbrian. In particular, the Laude (Praises) deserve to be better known. They resonate well with our modern sensibility being both direct and yet clear in describing complexities of the spiritual journey.

In January 2013, HardPress Publishing produced a good quality reproduction of Evelyn Underhill’s 1919 work available online for about $AUD 31, or the original J.M. Dent Publisher version is available for loan (free) through the Australian Public Library System. For those who read Umbrian, the Laude are available online through the Gutenberg project at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: